"I knew there was something special to this, and I wanted to capture it as it was happening because I wasn’t writing things down."
Photo courtesy Guerrilla Tacos
Wesley Avila, chef of Guerrilla Tacos, is big, brown, bearded, and covered in tasteful tattoos. His food has won praise from Mario Batali, Skrillex, and Jonathan Gold. Wes's pedigree for making "fancy tacos"—second-generation Mexican-American, culinary school and Ducasse-trained, now slings foie, sea urchin, and caviar on the street—is unmatched. He is literally one of the coolest, most handsome and charming chefs you could possibly imagine.
Food writers tend toward genuflection, but you can't just "yes, chef" a chef all the time when you're writing his cookbook. You'll miss out on getting to know the person—and your readers will too. I'm lucky that through writing an extremely personal cookbook (my idea, not his) with Wes, I also made one of my closest friends.
I sat down with Wes to de-brief on our book, nearly two years in the making, over beers. It's conversations like this one that resulted in the stories and recipes you'll find in the Guerrilla Tacos cookbook, out now on 10 Speed Press.
Wesley Avila: So we're going to do the same interview for the fifteen-hundredth time?
Richard Parks III: Bear with me.
RP: Nicole [Tourtelot, literary agent at DeFiore] approached you about doing this book. It wasn't necessarily your idea. What were your motivations for saying yes? Did you just see dollar signs?
WA: No, I'd wanted to do a book for years. I told Tanya [Mueller, Wes's wife] that I wanted to do a book the first year I was doing Guerrilla Tacos as an illegal cart on the street. I knew there was something special to this, and I wanted to capture it as it was happening because I wasn't writing things down. I was doing crazy dishes, like a campachana with five different kinds of fish and an oyster shucked to order. I was making tamales at my apartment and selling them on the cart. Braising stuff. Staying up all night making salsas, covering the blender with a pillow so I wouldn't wake up the neighbors. Getting shut down by the cops but also figuring out ways around it. I knew all the tricks to making a street food business work. This was years before Nicole approached me.
RP: What was the idea for that book?
WA: I wanted to do a field manual, like a Boy Scout manual. All black and white, Xeroxed papers, folded in half and stapled together. It'd have info about permits, getting around with the police, vender practices, where to source shit, which licenses you need, who to call at the city, who not to call. Plus a couple recipes. So when Nicole hit me up years later I was like, let's do a book—but like a real one, a normal one. Not giving away the keys to the kingdom the way the manual would have. That's worth $2 million. That's like coming up with the cure for syphilis … or… what was that disease Pasteur cured?
RP: You mean pasteurization, like milk?
WA: No, this was a cure for a disease.
RP: Was it crabs?
WA: No, like a shot.
WA: Maybe penicillin. Yeah. (It was a rabies vaccine.—RP) That manual would have been like penicillin going public. I'm out here with a truck still competing with all the other street vendors for business. I don't want to give that away for free. When I have a brick and mortar restaurant I'll write that shit. We'll do it together. It won't take two years like this one. It'll take us a month to write, bro.
WATCH: How to Make Tamales with Wesley Avila
RP: I don't know, don't you remember how hard this one was to get through? I don't think either of us knew it'd be so much work. Like, back when you got the deal and knew you'd be able to hire a writer to help—what did you think a "writer" would be doing? Everything?
WA: I thought I'd be talking a lot and they'd be typing a lot and it'd just get done quick. But then I realized, I need to be with this person 2 years. I need to like this person. I honestly don't even remember two of the other candidates I interviewed.
RP: What were your first impressions of me?
WA: This guy writes like chicken scratch. I was looking at your notes and I was like, I can't read that. I doubt he can read that. You came to an event we were doing and you were asking me all these questions about my family and my childhood and really specific stuff about how to boil a potato, and I was just cooking all these tacos and I'm not very communicative when I'm in the zone like that. And you were writing all this nonsense in your little notepad and eating all the tacos I was making and talking about yourself and eventually I was like, this guy is cool.
RP: You thought I was cool?
WA: You were chill. Not too much. And not like, "We need to capture the essence of Guerrilla Tacos and your story, Chef." You were not blowing smoke. And you wrote really well when we asked you to turn in a trial recipe.
RP: When did you start to feel like you were getting into more than you bargained for with the book?
WA: When we needed to turn stuff in. All we had was recipes. Not even the essays. We hadn't even started that part, and we'd been working for almost a year. Then when we started meeting more than once a week I was like, damn, when will this end?
RP: You resisted a bit when we got too into detail about your family and your mom's death—which I knew I wanted to feature in the book.
WA: It was getting a little too personal. I was comfortable sharing all that stuff with you, but I didn't want to publish it. And you went and wrote all this stuff about my mom's death, the factory she worked at, all the food she used to cook me as a kid, all the stuff I told you about how that still affects me today. And yes, I was concerned. I was like, it's a fucking cookbook! This is way too intimate.
RP: And now it's out. Everybody can see it.
WA: And now my favorite parts of the book are the essays. They're what make the book different. The personal parts I was so resistant to. Now they're things I get to relive when I look at the book.
RP: How did it feel to have, as one of your employees put it, "a white guy with a funny mustache and Birkenstocks" helping you tell your family's immigration story?
WA: You were from LA. You knew good music. You knew good food. If you're from LA, you're an Angeleno. That's who I am and that's who you are. You don't need to be Mexican to get Mexican food. I'm not doing Mexican food anyway. You're looking at LA the same way I do because you were born and raised in it.
RP: You feel like we're from the same culture.
RP: I love that photo of you and your parents at the Dodgers game in the '80s. It's the most LA photo ever.
WA: People keep messaging me about that hat my dad's wearing: "NO CERVEZA, NO TRABAJO." We should put that on a hat and release them, limited-edition.
RP: People are messaging me about it, too.
WA: But super limited edition, like 24. One for me, one for you, one for my dad. And then like, 21 more.
RP: Anything you regret not having in the book?
WA: Old notes from when we first started the cart. I have some outside in the glove compartment of my truck. They look like ledgers from the 1930s.
RP: We should put some in this article.
RP: What about the recipes in the book, any regrets there?
WA: Not one. Not after we spent all that time testing them.
RP: Where does that confidence come from?
WA: From when my mom died when I was a kid. I had everything going from me, and then nothing going for me. Like we say in the book, I'm always waiting for the other shoe to drop, alway ready to move on. This isn't my Citizen Kane. It doesn't define me.
RP: I have to confess something about the salsa for the sweet potato taco.
WA: It's way too spicy? You can't know how spicy a pepper is going to be. The spice level varies.
RP: No. I increased the amount of roasted red peppers in the recipe at the last minute.
WA: For the book?
WA: Behind my back?
RP: I'm sorry. I was obsessed with it. The color was off. It was keeping me up at night. I tested it like a million times. Or maybe a dozen times.
WA: Actually, there is a secret to that I didn't put in the book or ever tell you about.
RP: Ha. What is it?
WA: I'm not going to say.
RP: Come on.
WA: I'll tell you off the record.
The Guerrilla Tacos cookbook is available wherever books are sold. Upcoming book talks/signing are scheduled at @NowServingLA (on November 5) and the Edendale Branch of the LA Public Library (on November 20), and at Silver Lake Wine and Collection, the vintage store.